David Russell Tappy - Remembered
Russell Tappy joined the Division of National Mapping's Melbourne based topographic mapping branch in early 1966 and undertook field work as a member of the Aerodist measuring party. This field party used then state of the art airborne microwave electronic distance measuring equipment to establish horizontal control points on the ground that could later be identified on aerial photography used to compile maps. The control points were for the 1:100,000 scale National Topographic Mapping Programme. By late 1966, Russell was in charge of a two-man remote party (with radio call sign 8SXT) that operated measuring equipment on the ground at survey stations. By providing one end of the line, usually near degree of latitude and longitude intersections, the remote party allowed the master equipment mounted in a fixed wing aircraft to accurately measure distance between two or more such stations. This allowed the positions of the survey stations to be determined by trilateration. Typically, there would be four or five remote parties at distant points in the field at a time. After scheduled lines at one survey station were measured, the remote party there had to reposition to another station so the measuring programme could proceed; this would involve vehicle travel often over considerable distances through remote terrain.
Late on Wednesday 26 October 1966, Russell with passenger John Nolton, left Hughenden (Queensland) in an International AB130 four-wheel-drive utility (ZSU 119) to occupy another remote station (NM/B/229) by the next morning. NM/B/229 was located to the north-east of Richmond and was about 170 kilometres from Hughenden. Tragically about 66 kilometres west of Hughenden the vehicle crashed while negotiating road works at a detour near the Eastern Creek crossing on the Flinders Highway. John Nolton was unhurt but sadly Russell sustained severe internal injuries and died about 1:00 am next morning at Hughenden Hospital. For much of the harrowing night, party leader Syd Kirkby comforted Russell at his hospital bedside. Russell was 26 years of age when he passed away. He was survived by his father, mother and a brother. Russell was buried at Hughenden cemetery at 5:30 pm on Friday 28 October 1966 with Church of England rites; Brother PC Scott was the clergyman and the undertaker was SJ McLean.
Over 42 years have passed since Russell Tappy sadly left us too early in his young and promising life. The organisation he then worked for ceased to function in the form Russell knew 21 years ago; some 21 years after his death. For many former organisations, a span of 42 years would be too much for corporate memories to endure. But this is not the case with NatMap. The nature of NatMap's survey and mapping work required its people to pay close attention to detail and maintain a ready recall of operational matters. Also, the shared experience of living and working together in small groups for extended periods in remote area, often under adverse conditions, forged lasting personal bonds between many NatMappers that were not unlike the mateship bonds formed in military organisations.
As well as Syd Kirkby and John Nolton, members of Russell's 1966 survey party, amongst others, included: Ed Burke, Gavin Chambers, John Ely, Norm Hawker, George Jennings, Carl McMaster, Murray Porteous, Phil Welling and the late Kandar (Ken) Singh (who was the Aero Commander pilot). John Ely and Phil Welling were pall bearers at Russell's funeral. Ed Burke recalled that Russell had started the field season working around Hay in the Riverina district of New South Wales and that they had travelled together for most of the season while Russell learnt the ropes from Ed; by about the time the party was operating in the Hughenden area Russell had gained enough knowledge and experience to become a remote party leader. John Ely remembered Russell as a steady, quiet person; a non-drinker whose previous occupation was library officer. John also recalled that Russell's own car was a VW and that he was keen on a girl he had recently met at Mackay. Murray Porteous recalled Russell as a quiet, dedicated colleague and of sadly driving Russell's brother to the site of the fatal accident. Carl McMaster recalled Syd Kirkby leaving their shared accommodation room late in the night but was unaware of the sad reason until next morning. It was then that Syd asked Carl to go to the accident site to carry out a survey of it with a local police officer. Syd also gave Carl a telegram for George Jennings who was at the accident site with John Nolton. The telegram contained further tragic news for George as it advised of the death in Melbourne of his former wife.
Syd Kirkby remembered Russell as a highly intelligent and quietly determined young man with an adventurous spirit and, despite his generally quiet nature, a young bloke with a bit of dash about him. Syd found him to be a hard worker who was both dedicated and reliable. He said that Russell was one out of the mould that brought to the Map so many fine, intelligent, widely capable young men to do a job which was a bit different and in which they served so well. Syd sensed while at Russell's hospital bedside that he fully realised he was in a grave situation, yet faced his pending fate stoically without word of complaint or recrimination.
It eventuated that in over four decades of field operations in some of the remotest area of Australia, Russell Tappy's death was the sole such tragedy to befall NatMappers; of course it was still one too many. Russell's all too brief working life with NatMap and untimely death was not only sadly remembered by his contemporaries and also conveyed to other young men who later followed in his NatMap adventure. Lawrie O'Connor and Laurie McLean joined NatMap in the latter 1960s after Russell's death. When travelling through Hughenden in September 2008 they paid their respects to Russell and took the images used in this article.
Prepared by Laurie McLean in April 2009 (with minor updates in August 2014 and April 2015).